University and College Union announces marking boycott

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Chris McLaughlin & Gina Mete

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The foremost trade union representing academic staff at the University of Glasgow has decided to stage a marking boycott, set to begin on Thursday 6 November. This is to be the first marking boycott in the university sector since 2006, when employers responded by refusing to pay the salaries of participating staff.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) warned that its members across the UK will refuse to set and mark examinations if employers proceed with proposed changes to pensions.

Planned changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) would see benefits linked to final salaries ended, with additional benefits no longer accruing on salaries above £40,000. Staff would also be expected to make additional contribution payments.

Under the terms of the action both examinations and coursework will neither be set nor marked, and feedback to students halted.

This decision comes on the heels of a ballot the UCU took of its members, which showed that 78% of those who voted are in support of strike action, while 87% voted for action short of a strike.

The immediate call for a marking boycott, historically the union’s “nuclear option”, is being seen by some as signalling a change to a more hard-line strategy on the part of the UCU. A year long dispute during the 2013-14 session proceeded with a series of three two-hour strikes followed by three one-day strikes, with the escalation of a marking boycott only threatened in the final term, following a series of failed negotiations with employers.

President of the UCU Glasgow Office, Dr. Iain Banks, explained the position of the union to the Glasgow Guardian and stated: “The UCU is taking industrial action because USS supported by Universities UK (our employers’ association) are seeking to impose changes on our pensions that will see reductions of up to 27%; The employers have presented their proposals as a fait accompli, but much of their work has been discredited; in particular, the scale of any problem with the USS deficit is multiplied because of the unsound methodology used in the USS analysis.

He continued: “The employers are trying to downplay the impact of the changes and suggest very few will be disadvantaged by the changes, but this has been undermined by two separate actuarial reports that show very few staff will not lose out.

“It is our position that the employers are seeking to use this exaggerated crisis to push through radical changes which will be impossible to undo; some university managements are clearly unhappy about the proposed changes and have spoken out against them.”

Banks noted that the UCU did not desire to go on strike, and their overall aim was to bring a quick resolution to this issue, stating: “None of us want to be taking industrial action; we have just finished a bruising confrontation over pay, and now we are having to fight once again on the pension issue.

“The reason that we have gone straight to a marking boycott is to try to bring this dispute to a rapid conclusion, which is to everyone’s benefit.  The marking boycott while it is in force will stop students being set coursework or receiving formal marks, but it will not impact on teaching and students’ education.”

He reiterated that the UCU was committed to ensuring that a solution would be reached rapidly, but did warn that should the University refuse to engage in negotiations, there would be disruptions to students’ academic life.

Banks stated: “We remain committed to a negotiated solution as quickly as possible to limit the disruption to students.  We don’t want to be taking action, we want to be teaching and researching as normal.  Unfortunately, there will be a great deal of disruption if our employers refuse to give ground in the negotiations and drag the dispute out, or if they react disproportionately and deduct 100% pay for partial performance.

“The employers can bring an end to this dispute by returning to the negotiating table and working with UCU to resolve the pension issue; if the dispute begins to disrupt education, it will be the choice of the employers, not of the staff.”

The USS is currently the UK’s second largest pension fund, a privately financed scheme paid for by staff and employers without direct taxpayer funding. Its 150,000 members are drawn from the current and former staff of 67 “old” universities, including all the elite Russell Group institutions such as Glasgow.

Glasgow University expressed their dissatisfaction at the current situation and stated: “We are disappointed that the UCU is calling for an assessment boycott and will be doing all that we can to minimise any disruption both to staff and students that the proposed action might cause.”

The Glasgow Guardian attempted to contact the SRC for a comment on this issue but they were unavailable for comment at time of print.